We met up with Kyrsten Sinema in a small Tempe coffee shop, right on the edge of the Arizona State University campus a perfect setting for this congresswoman.
“Totally a bookworm,” she said.
Wearing her signature glasses, Sinema jokes, “I don't want to sound like a total nerd.”
But still, she can’t stop talking about education or her love of learning, something that has changed the course of her life.
“It was my ticket to the American dream,” she says.
It was a one-way ticket out of her familiar story of being homeless for almost three years.
Sinema says part of her motivation to succeed came from watching her mom struggle.
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“When life threw her a curve ball, she didn't have all the tools that she needed to take care of her kids financially,” she recalls.
She also gives credit to her first-grade teacher in Tucson.
“Never once did she say, 'You can't do that Kyrsten,' or, 'Sit down,' or, 'This is what the class is doing,'” Sinema said.
Sinema raced through her studies, graduating high school at just 16. She headed to BYU and stayed on the fast track.
She graduated college early as well.
“Just 18 (years old),” said Sinema.
She says she earned her bachelors and a masters degree in social work. Her goal is to help solve people's problems.
“It's the cornerstone of my work as a public official,” Sinema said.
That work first began as a state representative in 2004. All the while she was still cracking the books, keeping up an impressive pace.
”I went back to school later to become an attorney,” Sinema said.
She says she wanted to know how the law affected everyday citizens.
“Later, I decided to get a Ph.D. Most recently, I went back to college and got my MBA,” Sinema said.
“So are you like 55 now?” we asked jokingly, winning a laugh from the candidate.
She’s actually 42 and a U.S. congresswoman since 2012. She pushes herself not just mentally but physically. She is an avid runner, triathlete and part of a bi-partisan exercise group in the nation’s Capitol.
And her focus right now is her role in Congress.
“Any hopes or thoughts of having a family of your own?” we asked.
“I'm really just focused on serving Arizona,” Sinema replied.
Her love of reading gets airtime on long flights to Washington. Recent books include "Team of Rivals" about President Lincoln and "Boys of Everest" about an important era in mountaineering.
“That, to me, sounds like crazy and unattainable, and so reading about it was just incredible,” she says.
It's much like her journey from homelessness to the Hill and her evolution along the way.
”Sometimes I find that an opinion I used to have isn't the right one. And I can change or shift as I grow and learn more,” Sinema said.
With the U.S. Senate in her sights, she is still particularly proud of a more humble profession.
“What I love most of all, is teaching,” she confesses.
She's taught social work at ASU for 16 years, and when we asked how much longer she will do so, the answer should be obvious.
“Oh, forever. It is my favorite thing to do," Sinema said.
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